The words of a marriage ceremony describe what is happening ("Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today...") and how it's going to work (the vows). My husband and I, like most Europeans and an increasing number of Americans, had two marriage ceremonies, a legal process at the county courthouse and then a spiritual/social wedding celebration. We got the contractual issues buttoned up at our legal ceremony, so we felt free to be more creative on our big wedding day.
Instead of repeating our courthouse vows or writing additional vows, we decided to express why we had already committed the rest of our lives to each other. We used English-translated passages by Spanish poet Pablo Neruda to illustrate the story of our relationship leading up to the celebration of our union in the springtime of the year and of our life together.
The Magic Words
Love is free. So is expressing it in words.
All brides, regardless of budget, can bring beauty, personality, and meaning to a wedding with thoughtfully written words. Religious couples often use sacred texts. My husband and I are non-theists who practice zazen, so our minister blessed us with a combination of Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist rites.
Our wedding was about celebrating a pact that had already been made and is constantly growing. My husband and I had been friends since we were kids, lovers for years, and legally married for eighteen months. The language of specific promises and "I pronounce thee man and wife" did not fit our ceremony. Instead of reciting vows to each other, we read love poetry by Pablo Neruda to express our present bond and intentions.
The words we chose felt honest and right... if a bit unconventional. I read the poem "Love," including the lines,
Of everything I have seen, it's you I want to go on seeing;
of everything I've touched, it's your flesh I want to go on touching.
I love your orange laughter.
I am moved by the sight of you sleeping.
Instead of having love defined for us that day ("Love is patient, love is kind, etc.") I used words that reflected the present reality of the two of us loving each other.
I don't know how others love, or how people loved in the past.
I live, watching you, loving you.
Our wedding party had not heard what we were going to read ahead of time, so their reactions were moving and spontaneous. Our words created a mood of excitement, passion, sincerity, and a bit of whimsical fun. When the groom read his piece, excerpts of "Every Day You Play," the maid of honor blushed so hard she hid her face behind her tulips!
His poem was as personal as mine.
You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
...I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.
How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul,
my name that sends them all running.
...My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body.
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
...I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains,
bluebells, dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
Whatever your deepest values, religious beliefs, and feelings about your marriage, be authentic to them. I was a bit nervous about reading such things in front of "God and everybody," including some extremely prudish and fundamentalist relatives, but everything we said was beautiful and true. And besides, we needed to get some of the pearl-clutching out of the way to prepare our more repressed guests for the kind of reception we were about to unleash!
I've emphasized that a wedding is about the whole community, not just the couple, and yet the couple is the center. At its best, a contemporary wedding invites the guests inward and onward. Sometimes they are challenged, lovingly, to stretch their comfort zones and open their minds and hearts.
You are never obligated to be dishonest or silent about your love at your wedding to ensure the comfort of your guests. You should accommodate your guests' needs, and you should consider their feelings to an extent, but you should never accommodate bigotry or judgments about romantic love that are incompatible with how you and your spouse live and love together. Steamroll that nonsense hastily and with a smile.
There are many sayings, proverbs, and definitions of "what love is." But many of them contradict each other, and any of them can be used disingenuously or manipulatively, and none of those axioms can authentically describe all people or all couples. Marriage isn't owned by any single culture or tradition, especially here in America. Seal your bond with the words that speak for your own love and your own truth, and you will have a ceremony to remember with tenderness and pride.